Paul Wellstone was a U.S. Senator from Minnesota from 1990 until the time of his death in a plane crash in 2002. A hero to many on the left and a favorite target of the right, Wellstone was an unapologetic liberal in an increasingly conservative era.
Wellstone entered politics after a two-decade career as a teacher and organizer. A professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota for 21 years, Wellstone was an unconventional scholar and accomplished grassroots organizer. It was during his immersion in protest politics at Carleton that Wellstone developed the techniques and leadership skills that would eventually help him become a U.S. senator. – Bill Lofy
In the fall of 1969, Wellstone arrived in Minnesota, entering a political environment notably different from the conservatism of North Carolina, where he received his undergraduate degree and PhD from the University of North Carolina. These were the glory days of Minnesota liberalism. The Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL), the product of a 1943 merger between Minnesota Democrats and the influential Farmer-Labor movement, held a vice grip on power in the state. Hubert Humphrey was returning to the United States Senate, where he had served since 1949, after four years as vice president under Lyndon Johnson. Eugene McCarthy was completing his second and final term in the Senate, and Walter Mondale was finishing his first term as senator.
At Carleton College, Wellstone immersed himself in campus activism – organizing protests, criticizing the school’s administration for its ties to corporate interests, and speaking out on every issue, minor and major, affecting the community. “It was clear,” said Sy Schuster, one of Wellstone’s Carleton friends and colleagues, “that he was less concerned about academic political science than about political science directly servicing people’s needs.” Wellstone frequently included community service and organizing projects as part of his classroom curriculum.
As a teacher, Wellstone is remembered for his passion and uncommon ability to relate to his students. When he arrived at Carleton at the age of 25, his students were not much younger than he was, and they viewed Wellstone, who looked, acted, and talked like them, as a contemporary. One of his students recollected being a freshman in Wellstone’s first class as a professor:
“Like me, he wore t-shirts and jeans to class and seemed to pay scant attention to the reading list he’d assigned, except that he had an amazing command of facts that he used to support his lectures, which actually were more like speeches. His brilliance was manifest. He was a first year teacher, so he couldn’t have memorized his lectures, but he spoke without notes for an hour. He wasn’t constrained by a podium, but he was predictable. Every lecture he’d start with his fingers jammed into his jeans with the thumbs hooked over the edge of the pocket, as if he were trying to restrain himself from what he must have known was coming–the inevitable rising volume, quickening cadence, and karate chopping of knowledge into our small freshman brains.”
Despite his strongly held views, Wellstone was also known for welcoming debate in his classes. Another student recalled, “Whether students were liberal or conservative didn’t matter. He pushed us to think about what we could do to make change in the world.”
As a scholar, Wellstone pursued an unconventional path. He ignored conventional “publish-or-perish” wisdom, which says that an untenured professor without a substantial body of published scholarly work has little hope of receiving tenure. During his two years at Carleton, he wrote only one article for a scholarly journal. Instead of producing scholarship, he concentrated on organizing. “I was determined not to be an outside observer but to use my skills as a political scientist to empower people and to step forward with people in justice struggles,” he said later.
By the end of his third year in Minnesota, Wellstone could point to an impressive list of accomplishments as an organizer. He helped raise awareness of rural poverty in Rice County, led protests against local government leaders, and trained an impressive number of students in the essentials of organizing. Above all, he enabled a cadre of poor and disenfranchised individuals to become their own leaders. Yet for all his successes as an organizer, Wellstone was putting his career at risk, because Carleton hired him to teach and to be a scholar, not to organize.
In 1973, the administration admonished Wellstone to forego his organizing activities and pursue more rigorous academic research. They warned him if he didn’t make changes, his contract would be terminated the following year. But Wellstone refused to change. Over the course of the next year, he continued his organizing work. Instead of publishing academic articles, he chronicled his experience with OBRC in a book. Carleton was unimpressed, and made good on its threat in January of 1974. In a unanimous decision by the political science department, dean, president, and board of trustees, Wellstone’s contract was terminated. He was given a year to find another job.
Led by a group of seniors, the Carleton student body rallied to Wellstone’s support. Within weeks of the announcement that his contract would not be renewed, a group of students formed the Committee to Reinstate Paul Wellstone, which led protests on Wellstone’s behalf, gathered 790 signatures (out of a student body of 1,600) demanding the decision be reversed, and led a student boycott of courses in the political science department. After months of pressure, the dean of the college, Bruce Morgan, agreed to take “the procedurally extraordinary step” of bringing two tenured members of faculty at other universities to evaluate Wellstone’s work. The evaluators, Frances Fox Piven and Bruce Bacharach – both professors of poverty and race studies – wrote overwhelmingly positive assessments.
Wellstone’s future was secured when Dean Morgan, who had originally supported the administration’s decision, changed his mind and threatened to resign if Wellstone were not reinstated and offered immediate tenure. The board, nearly a year after refusing to renew Wellstone’s contract, reversed its decision and awarded the 28-year-old tenure. He had gone from being denied reappointment for his perceived lack of scholarly credentials to being the youngest faculty member in Carleton’s history to receive tenure.